Monday, July 13, 2015

Taiwan's Trashy ESL Sesame Street

Taiwan's Trashy ESL Sesame Street

     After teaching ESL in New York City for twenty-five years it was a pleasure to retire in Taiwan. I love teaching here part-time without any pressure from my boss. I was thrilled when a colleague e-mailed to say he would be coming to visit his sister in Taiwan and wanted to see me and chat about old times. I spent last Saturday in Taipei with Jeff, his half-sister, Amy, her husband, Yo-Min, and one-year-old child, Sharon.
Jeff & David Reunion in Taipei
      Jeff is one of the best English teachers I have ever met but he is killing himself. The students love him and he is a diligent teacher. Jeff is overweight, still smoking heavily, drinking coffee, and working like a dog at FDR. We worked together in Brooklyn for twenty years until I retired a few years ago; he still has ten years to retire. He is 45 years old but looks older than I do! 
     Amy is 37 and has lived in Taipei five years teaching in a bushiban in Taipei. She surfaced here in a educational career move from psychology. She began teaching ESL to support herself. A few years ago, She met her husband and it was not long before she conceived a child with him. 
     Amy works at a bushiban (cram school) called Open Sesame. She works for a renegade bushiban with a dipshit boss. Hers is the only income in her family. 
      We sat in Amy’s one room 12,000 NT a month studio as the typhoon poured outside, the edge affecting Taipei,  the eye pounding Shanghai. Jeff and Amy went outside to smoke cigarettes. Her husband,  donned his rain poncho to get Pizza Hut on his motorcycle. 
     Amy trusted in the kindness of strangers, amorous and business-minded. She was flabbergasted by the slimeball who paid her salary. She got paid if she fulfilled the terms of the contract that he himself had written in English, so broken, it needed a good imagination to put together.     Amy, an English teacher of children, hoped to never see them again once she left Taiwan; she only wanted a fair pay for a fair day's work.In Taiwan, the chances of that happening are almost as bad as finding toilet paper in a public bathroom stall here. With unenforced and loose labor laws, even for Taiwan citizens, foreign workers, be they Indonesian care-givers or English bushiban workers, don't stand a chance for respectful compensation.
     Given half a chance, with proper in-service training, an English speaking foreigner can become a qualified teacher, if that was what the bushiban wanted. Amy was lucky that when the owner called her into his office it was only to admit that she was right; the labor department called him to say it was in her right to take three days off for her father-in-law's funeral, but she better not do it again. Amy's job is safe for now.
     When Amy told me her cram school used Oxford University Press Open Sesame by Jane Brauer, I was surprised. It is an excellent ESL series that employs the "Natural Approach" to language acquisition developed by Steven Krashen. It brought me back to 1986 when I opened my first bushiban in Taipei. When I got home, I fished out an old photograph of myself standing in front of a book display. I e-mailed it to Amy to ask if that was the book her cram school used. Her boss said he was the first one to use the book twenty years ago. He even named his bushiban after the title. I showed her he was lying. 

 Open Sesame display in Taipei 1986
     When I first started using Open Sesame, Ladder Publishing Company hadn't yet contracted with Oxford University Press nor had they lost their license to distribute it, yet.  I bought the books at Caves Bookstore or from book stores overseas in America, Japan, or Hong Kong. The deal Ladder made gave them exclusive rights to publish and sell the books in Taiwan. They wanted to open a chain of franchised bushibans. They were not cram schools per se, at the time still not legal, but places where the textbooks would be used and sold.   
     The local newspapers had advertisements by Ladder offering franchise locations. My place, American School English Center, had also placed an ad for students. The owner of Ladder saw the ad and called me up; they were interested in seeing how I used the textbook and music cassettes in my classes. We set up a date for them to observe me.
     They were impressed. I was confident that if the author of Open Sesame were there, she would  approve of my pedagogy. The smiles of the children and the accolades of the parents convinced them to hire me as their curriculum developer and teacher-trainer. My school would be their model for other branches. They wanted me to become their first franchisee. I said "No, thank you."
     I didn't see the need to sell whole sets of books, tapes, and workbooks to parents; only what the student needed. I was happy with a school of my own. After I refused, they took off their kid gloves.

Workbooks by Tiitsman/Gothard 
     "You must cease and desist from using any images with Sesame Street Muppet character likenesses," read the legal document in my hand. We had one large vinyl poster of the Muppets outside our building that we had to take down. But when Open Sesame was pulled from the shelves at Caves Bookstore, I was incensed. I had to buy the books from overseas again. 
     I decided to write to Oxford University Press which had its Asian offices in Hong Kong and protest Ladder Publishing Company's exclusive distribution. I was going to Hong Kong to renew my visa and buy more books. To my surprise, the editor in charge wrote back and invited me to visit her.  
     The editor of Oxford and I chatted about the English as a Second Language series. She was interested in the field testing I had done with the book and was interested in the syllabus I had written with the teachers' edition. I praised the book and demonstrated some lessons.  I asked that I be allowed to buy the series and continue using it at my bushiban. She gave me a letter to present to the owner of Ladder Publishing Company:
     "We hereby give permission for David Temple to continue using Open Sesame in his classes. Furthermore, you must supply him with however may books he wishes to purchase from you." Ladder was furious but had to comply; we didn't have to become a franchisee. 
     In the late 90's while teaching at FDR High School in Brooklyn, my wife read a news article about how Oxford ended their contract with Ladder because they were illegally printing their own editions of Open Sesame. I am not sure what happened to the Open Sesame franchisees after that but I know they are still around. Amy teaches at one in Taipei and there is one near my home in Taichung; they're all over the island apparently, still with exclusive rights to the book but syllabuses that abuse the author's purpose at the whim of the franchisee. 
     Amy is lucky to have a good textbook to teach youngsters English as a Second Language but the cram school has no intention of teaching so long as they can sell the books and bully young foreign English teachers. English language instruction in Taiwan has made little progress since I started my career here more than thirty years ago. Teaching conditions for English teachers in Taiwan has not improved, either; wages are as low as they were back then and there is still little legitimate teacher training. 

     It is tough being a foreign teacher in Taiwan with little security or professionalism from bosses. Taiwan may be a place to begin a career in ESL instruction but it is not the place to learn much or get appreciation for what you do. 

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